Henbane - The Insane Seed that Breedeth Madness
Originally published at Lughnasa 1998
Henbane, whose botanical name is Hyoscyamus niger, is a member of the Solanaceae order of plants which includes such innocuous members as the humble potato and tomato but also highly poisonous and notorious ones such as belladonna, mandrake and the daturas. It is one of the legendary "witch" plants, renowned in folklore for its claimed magickal qualities and it features in many of the recipes for witches' flying ointments which have been preserved in the records of the witch trials in an various other sources.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the plant makes its appearance in the English language as henne-belle, a form which is recorded as early as 1000 ce in the writings both of Æfric and subsequently in a number of early English medical manuscripts of the 11th century. It seems likely that this form derived at least in part from the bell-shape of the plant's flowers. The more familiar (and modern) form henbane was first recorded in the mid 13th century. The -bane part refers to an archaic Old English word for death, so the name as a whole refers to a belief that poultry, most notably hens, were particularly vulnerable to the effects of eating its seeds.
The same idea is found in the name wolfsbane, one of the common traditional names for aconite (aconitum napellus), which was not only sacred in Greek myth to Hecate and therefore to Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guarded the gates of the underworld, but also refers to the one-time use of the plant for poisoning meat left out as bait for wolves.
Natural History and Habitat
Henbane is not officially considered a native of Britain, its natural range being through southern Europe and across western Asia, though according to Mrs Grieve, writing in the 1930s, it was at that time fairly frequent throughout Britain and Ireland and was known to grow wild in some 60 counties in Britain. She suggests that it may have originally escaped from herbalists gardens and subsequently at least partially naturalised.
When growing wild, henbane generally favours sandy or chalky soils and grows readily on waste ground, around abandoned and derelict buildings and alongside roads. It also grows well close to the sea and readily colonises disused rabbit warrens. (Grieve)
Henbane is also reported to be one of a number of the Solanaceae order of plants which have colonised the campus of Nottingham University following their escape from the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences where they are cultivated for research purposes. (Mabey) Assorted exotic daturas have also, apparently, "gone native" on this site.
Henbane grows up to 36 inches tall and may be either annual or biennial. The annual form flowers in July and August and the biennial one in May and June of the second year. During the first year a rosette of basal leaves grows; in the second this is followed by an erect stem which may be simple or slightly branched. The stem and leaves are slightly sticky to the touch. The flowers are bell-shaped, hairy on the outside and shade from a pale, dingy yellow to a reddish-purple towards the open end of the bell. They are veined with purple or violet and each has five distinct tips. Each of the seed pods may contain up to five hundred very small greyish-brown seeds not unlike those of the poppy. The leaves, according to Culpepper, are "very large, thick, soft, woolly" and lie on the ground "much cut in, or torn on the edges, of a dark, ill greyish green colour; among which rise up diverse small branches with lesser leaves on them ....".
All parts of the plant are highly toxic, the leaves being the most poisonous part of the plant - so much so that there mere smell of the fresh leaves has been found to cause giddiness and stupor in some people. Culpepper comments that "The whole plant more that the root has a very heavy, ill, soporiferious smell, somewhat offensive." The main active agents are several tropane alkaloids - hyoscyamine and hyoscine, from which the plant takes its Latin name, and atropine.
Sheep and (according to some authorities at least) pigs appear to be largely immune to the poison whereas serious poisoning has been reported in cattle which have eaten henbane. Other writers have claimed that pigs have in fact been poisoned by the plant, so the position with regard to pigs is rather unclear. It was also once a common practice to add small quantities of henbane herb or seed to horse and cattle feeds in order to fatten them up - perhaps by making the animals too stupefied to walk off the flesh. The toxin is sometimes present in the milk of cattle which have been given feed containing henbane.
Healing Uses of Henbane
Henbane was much used as a medicine in former times. Mrs Grieve reports that it was so widely used even fairly recently that it was deliberately grown for the medicinal market because collection from the wild could not meet the demand. The active ingredients are extracted from the leaves and flowering tops, both collected during the flowering period, and occasionally from the fruits.
It has a similar effect on the body to that of belladonna which also contains hyoscyamine, although the higher proportion of this alkaloid in henbane produces less of an excitory effect. It also has generally sedative effects on the central nervous system. The results of overdose include dry mouth, dilation of the pupils, restlessness, then hallucinations and delirium leading to coma and ultimately death. (6) It was with a pharmaceutical preparation of derived from henbane that the notorious Dr Crippen poisoned his wife Cora in 1910 before attempting to flee to the USA with his mistress, Ethel le Neve. (Green)
As well as being a sedative, its medical uses are (or at least were) largely antispasmodic and anodyne, ie as a pain-killer. Because of its sedative and antispasmodic actions it has been used as an effective treatment of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, particularly for relieving tremor and rigidity in the early stages.
Much of the folklore and traditional belief connected with henbane derives from its medicinal qualities. Thiselton-Dyer, for example, quotes Gerard's claims about the dental uses of the plant: "The root boiled with vinegar, and the same holden hot in the mouth, easeth the pain of the teeth." He further adds: "The seed is used by mountebank tooth-drawers, which run about the country, to cause worms to come forth from the teeth, by burning it in a chafing-dish of coles, the party holding his mouth over the fume thereof; but some crafty companions, to gain money, convey small lute-strings into the water, persuading the patient that those small creeprers came out of his mouth or other parts which he intended to cure." (Green)
In medieval medicine, the seeds were heated over coal or charcoal until they produced fumes which were then inhaled as a painkiller or other treatment for toothache. Whether this merely stupefied the patient so that he was unaware of the pain or whether it temporarily eased the pain while leaving him fully conscious is unclear. The ancient Egyptians are also known to have smoked henbane for their dental problems, though the native Egyptian henbane, Hyoscyamus muticus, contains higher concentrations of alkaloids and therefore produces even more powerful effects than our more familiar European variety.
Douce, meanwhile, wrote of the ability of the plant to send people mad: "Henbane, called insana, mad, for the use thereof is perillous, for it if be eate or dronke, it breedeth madness, or slowe lykenss of sleepe." (Thiselton-Dyer p315) He seems to have been largely quoting the words of Bartolomaeus who, writing in 1398, commented: "This herb is called insana wood, for the use thereof is perilous; for if it be eate or dranke, it breedeth woodenes, or slow liknes of slepe; therefore the herb is commonly called Morilindi, for it taketh away wytte and reason.".. (Green) This second (and earlier) description of the properties of henbane contains the archaic Old English word wod, meaning madness or fury, which will be familiar to pagans as part of the name of Woden or Oðinn - himself a God closely connected with shamanic ecstacy and storm-fury.
According to Mrs Grieve, dried root of henbane used to be hung as a necklace around the necks of young children to promote easy teething and to prevent convulsions. So long as they don't chew on it, presumably ....
Until fairly recently an oil obtained from the leaves was made into pain-relieving lotions for treating earache, neuralgia, sciatica and rheumatism, while homoeopathy prescribes its Hyoscyamus remedy for twitching, coughs, sensitive skin, and excited or obsessional behavioural problems. Modern medicine has also used derivatives of henbane as a pre-operative medication and for preventing travel sickness.
Henbane was believed in Germany to attract rain and was once believed to produce sterility in land and livestock. (Thiselton-Dyer p315). As the raising of storms and the blighting of crops and livestock were amongst the most common charges laid at the feet of accused "witches" by neighbours, it is not impossible that this German folklore may have derived from the plant's association with witches; if witches raised storms and blighted crops, then maybe they did it with henbane or other noxious plants. On the other hand, if livestock was poisoned by fodder containing henbane (and other similar plants) it may have been easier to assume that the sudden and unaccountable death of beasts must have been due to witchcraft than to attempt to find out what really killed them.
The possible connection between the poisoning of livestock by plant ingestion and subsequent witchcraft accusations has been discussed by Sally Hickey in Folklore.. Curiously Hickey manages to discuss the possible effects on beasts, especially cattle, of consuming almost every known British toxic plant except henbane, though this appears to be more an oversight than any deliberate exclusion, especially given the widespread occurence of this plant in Britain.
One of the more mundane traditional uses of henbane was in the flavouring of beer - a use which appears to have a very long history indeed as evidence of henbane and belladonna beer has apparently been found on at least one Neolithic site in Scotland. We take it for granted these days that beer and ale are made and flavoured with hops, but until the general adoption of hops beers were made with a wide variety of flavourings and enhancers. For what it is worth, the following recipe is provided for your general interest.
Find a container which is large enough to hold all the ingredients. Cook the henbane in water for 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile dissolve the malt in a couple of litres of water, dissolve the honey into it and add the henbane leaf-water. Then add the yeast. It might be useful to add a little bit more yeast than recommended because the tropane-alkaloids affect the yeast. Don't seal the container as it may explode.
The brew should start fermenting after a day or so and the fermentation should be finished after 4 or 5 days. The beer is now ready for drinking. You can also bottle it, in which case you can add a few drops of honey to each bottle and let it ferment for another week or two.
Serve preferably chilled. Store as normal beer.
Magickal Uses of Henbane
The ritual use of henbane goes back at least as far as the Neolithic period in Scotland. According to Dr Andrew Sharratt, who teaches archaeology at Cambridge University, traces of henbane were found in a lump of burnt porridge or other cereal residue found attached to a fragment of a Neolithic vessel of the type known as "Grooved Ware" at the ritual site at Balfarg/Balbirnie in Fifeshire.
The site includes a timber enclosure, thought to be part of a mortuary building, which was excavated by Gordon Barclay and Christopher Russell-White in the 1980s. It has been suggested that the timber building was used for the exposure of corpses and that the henbane brew may have been part of the offerings buried with them, thus connecting this plant with death and rituals of the dead. Dr Sharratt, at least, regards this as possible evidence for psychopompic shamanism in British Neolithic culture and possibly for some form of belief in spirit flight; the plant that can ease the spirit out of the body can help to ease its passage to the otherworld - whether one way for the spirit of the deceased or both ways for the accompanying shaman. Interestingly in this context, later Greek mythology tells us that the dead in Hades were crowned with henbane as they wandered aimlessly and hopelessly beside the River Styx which separated them from the land of the living.
Merryn Dineley, who is researching the whole question of brewing in the Neolithic at Manchester University, argues that these porridge-like residues are more likely to be evidence of brewing, in other words they represent the sediments left behind after the beer has been removed. She has pointed out that on a number of Neolithic sites, very large "Grooved Ware" pots have been found which would have been of a size to make brewing beer viable.
Dr Sharratt also reported that he "was talking last year  to a Danish Viking specialist who had excavated a lady buried in the cemetery of the Viking fortress of Fyrkat with a belt-pouch containing over 100 seeds of this plant; and she remarked that it was traditionally used in Jutland in chicken-stealing, to stun the intended victims." Which, as he points out, neatly brings us back to the very name of this plant - henbane.
The ancient Greeks believed that people under the influence of the herb became prophetic, and the priestesses of the Oracle of Delphi are claimed to have inhaled the smoke from smouldering henbane.
Nigel Pennick associates henbane with the rune Is (representing statis) and says it (the rune) is ruled by "Rinda, goddess of the frozen north" and is connected with "Verdandi, the Norn representing the present, 'that which is eternally becoming'." This seems to imply that he is associating henbane with these Goddesses in terms of northern magic, though he does not actually say so.
Modern magickal thinking considers henbane to be ruled by Saturn, which does seem not inappropriate for a herb which is so effective at bringing a swift death to those who use it rashly. However Culpepper reports, with some incredulity, that astrologers of his own and earlier times considered the plant to be ruled by Jupiter: "I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter" and argues that because henbane generally grows in "saturnine" places, especially the ditches where the contents of cesspits and privies were dumped, it should more properly be considered a herb of Saturn.
That said, my comments above about the association of henbane with madness and perhaps with an archetype which we might choose to associate with Woden may account for the alternative attribution of this plant to Jupiter; Woden/Oðinn and Jupiter seem to have shared at least some qualities as Indo-European Sky Fathers with the power to deal death from on high, their penchant for wandering amongst the realms of humanity and for acting as patrons or protectors of their favoured mortals. Both were also prone to disguising themselves when interfering with human activities, Jupiter in particular having a taste for shape-shifting into various animal forms ranging from swans to bulls.
Beyerl, meanwhile, says that henbane can be used for rituals of necromancy and the summoning of spirits and astral entities but cautions against the use of henbane internally "by any but the adept".. He suggests that the plant can be used more safely as an incense - though given the uncertain and unpredictable results which have been reported from burning henbane herb or seeds this would appear to be at best a questionable recommendation if only because of its very vagueness. How much of what part of the plant should you use in how big a confined area? If any reader is inclined to experiment, will they please renew their subscription before they start?
Henbane was once also believed to have aphrodisiac properties and was an ingredient of love potions, though whether such potions were to be swallowed or rubbed on assorted (and perhaps relevant) body bits is not made clear.
2.Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey, pp300 - 303
3.Culpepper's Complete Herbal, Wordsworth Reference, Ware 1995
4.Green Magic, Lesley Gordon, Webb & Bowen, Exeter 1977
5.The Folklore of Plants, T F Thiselton-Dyer, Llanerch Publishers, Lampeter 1994 p315
6.Rune Magic - The History and Practice of Ancient Runic Traditions, Nigel Pennick, Aquarian, London 1992
7.The Master Book of Herbalism, Paul Beyerl, Phoenix Publishing Co, Washingon, USA 1984
8.Flying up with the souls of the dead, Dr Andrew Sharratt, British Archaeology, no 15, June 1996
9.Fatal Feeds? Plants, Livestock Losses and Witchcraft Accusations in Tudor and Stuart England, Sally Hickey, Folklore Vol 101 1990 (ii) The Folklore Society
10.The Encyclopaedia of Superstition - ed Christina Hole, Hutchinson, London 1948